For Kobe Bryant, the last one was the sweetest.
The future Hall of Fame shooting guard, who formally announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2015-16 season earlier this week, made seven Finals appearances and won five championships during his illustrious 20-year career with the Lakers.
After pairing with Shaquille O’Neal for a three-peat in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Bryant teamed with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom to win titles in 2009 and 2010. So, which title does Bryant most cherish?
“I think the standard answer should be, ‘No. They’re all the same.’ But that’s just not true,” Bryant told TNT’s Ernie Johnson in a video interview this week. “When we beat Boston in 2010, for me, that’s number one with a bullet.”
Cynics might snicker at the response given the strained relationship between Bryant and O’Neal that eventually saw O’Neal traded to the Heat in 2004. Of course, Kobe wouldn’t pick one of the titles with Shaq. But Bryant had his reasons for selecting his fifth title as the one he remembers most fondly.
“Going up against three sure Hall of Famers, being down in the series 3-2, having lost to them in 2008,” Bryant explained to TNT. “Understanding the history of the rivalry and all that goes on there. Having a broken finger and playing with a cast. All those things make that championship more special than the rest.”
That’s a compelling case, indeed. The 2010 Celtics certainly stand out from the pack of Lakers’ Finals victims when it comes to talent level and drama. Not only did the Celtics roster feature Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—the three “sure Hall of Famers” Bryant referenced—but the series was the only one of Bryant’s seven Finals appearances that went all the way to seven games.
Here’s a quick rundown of Bryant’s five titles and his five vanquished Finals foes…
And now, a year-by-year examination of Kobe's five championship wins:
2000: Lakers over Pacers in 6
The 67-win Lakers downed a Pacers team that featured Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson and Rik Smits in six games, with O’Neal averaging 38 points and 16.7 rebounds. Bryant chipped in 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
This was the most dominant (by wins and point differential) regular-season team of Bryant’s five title-winning squads, but it needed seven games (and a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback) to get past the Blazers in the Western Conference finals.
2001: Lakers over Sixers in 5
After a so-so regular season, the Lakers turned it on during the playoffs and dismissed the Sixers in five games. While Allen Iverson famously stepped over Tyronn Lue, O’Neal ran roughshod over Philadelphia to the tune of 33 points and 15.8 rebounds per game. Bryant added 24.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
This was the most dominant postseason team of Bryant’s five title squads: the Lakers charged to a 15-1 record and +12.8 point differential during the playoffs.
2002: Lakers over Nets in 4
The Lakers swept the New Jersey Nets, who were coached by current Lakers coach Byron Scott and led by Jason Kidd. O’Neal won his third straight Finals MVP award by averaging 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, while Bryant added 26.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
This was the only Finals sweep of Bryant’s five title runs. The Nets only suffered one double-digit defeat in the series but, on balance, they were arguably the weakest of the Lakers’ five Finals victims given their regular-season record, below-average offense during the regular season, and negative point differential in the playoffs.
2009: Lakers over Magic in 5
Fresh off winning 65 games, the Lakers handled the Magic in just five games. L.A.’s big frontline held Dwight Howard, Bryant’s future teammate, in check, as Bryant averaged a series-best 32.4 points to take home his first Finals MVP award. Bryant poured in 40 points in a Game 1 victory.
All things considered, this has as a case as Bryant’s most impressive title, as Orlando won more games and posted a higher point differential in the regular season than any of his other four Finals victims. The Magic were also the only one of Bryant’s five Finals to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Meanwhile, Bryant posted his highest scoring average of his five Finals wins, O’Neal wasn’t present to hog the accolades, and the Lakers posted an excellent +7.2 point differential in the postseason, the second-highest of Bryant’s five title-winning teams.
2010: Lakers over Celtics in 7
The Lakers avenged their 2008 Finals defeat by knocking off the Celtics in seven games. Bryant won his second consecutive Finals MVP award by averaging a series-high 28.6 points, 8 rebounds and 3.9 assists. L.A. pulled out a tight Game 7 victory even though Bryant shot just 6-for-24. As Bryant mentioned, he dealt with a broken right index finger during the 2009-10 season.
Although Boston’s win total was deflated that year—compared to its 66 wins in 2008 and 62 wins in 2009—the 2010 Celtics were still strong enough to eliminate the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals (helping push LeBron James to the Heat in the off-season) and the Magic, who had won the conference championship the previous season. In so doing, they posted a +2.8 postseason point differential, the highest mark of any of the five teams Bryant beat in the Finals.
Garnett, Pierce and Allen were all 32 or older in 2010, but the accumulated talent on Doc Rivers’s team definitely stands out compared to the Lakers’ other Finals foes. It’s also easy to see why Bryant might conflate the 2008 Celtics, one of the most dominant teams of the post-Michael Jordan era, and the 2010 Celtics in his head given all the familiar faces on both teams. Boston blew out L.A. to close out the 2008 Finals, too, which surely made the 2010 revenge that much sweeter.
Bryant’s points about the revenge angle and the rivalry between the two teams are both strong. The Celtics were the only team he faced twice in the Finals, and L.A.’s victory over Boston marked the Lakers’ 16th championship in franchise history, pulling it one closer to the Celtics’ 17 banners. The 2010 Finals actually marked the 12th Finals meeting between the two franchises (including the Lakers’ days in Minneapolis) and just the third time the Lakers won.
Celtics over Lakers: 1959, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1984, 2008
Lakers over Celtics: 1985, 1987, 2010
To boil this down, Bryant selected his most memorable title win (2010) over the Lakers’ best regular-season run (2000), their most dominant postseason run (2001), their cleanest Finals victory (2002), and his most prolific individual Finals performance (2009). It’s hard to find fault with that decision-making. Given Bryant’s self-described love of “storytelling,” it’s not all that surprising he picked the triumph with the best narrative. Similarly, his masochistic tendencies virtually assure that he would select the ring that took the most games to secure.
There is a title missing, though: No. 6, the one that would have tied Bryant with Jordan. As he continues his farewell tour, Bryant is choosing to focus on the wins rather than dwell on any possible regrets over Finals losses to the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics.
“I did everything I possible could,” he told TNT. “It sounds crazy to say I won five championships and came up one short. Honestly, I’m okay with that. It just wasn’t in the cards for me to win six or seven. I did everything possible to try to make it happen. I can live with that every day.”
Besides, there’s consolation to be found in every direction: O’Neal “only” won four, the Celtics’ core never won a second title together, Miller and Iverson both retired without rings, Kidd retired with just one to his name (2011 Mavericks), and Howard is still pursuing his first title (good luck). Even LeBron James, who this week lamented that he never faced off against Bryant in the Finals, is stuck on two. Bryant heads into the sunset knowing full well that he will always be able to hold his own when it comes to ring-counting.